By Swami Harshananda
In the vernaculars, especially those derived from Sanskrit, the word ‘yajña’ is commonly used to indicate any work that involves a great effort and needs a lot of active co-operation. There was a tremendous influence of the Vedic sacrifices in the ancient times which is prevalent in present times also. This system is generally called as yajñas or yāgas. This system had a huge impact on the society over the millennia.
Famous Sacrifices of Present Times
Fortunately for the scholars of Indology and Vedic studies, Vedic sacrifices have not totally disappeared yet though they have become very rare. Even during this 20th century, 70 Vedic sacrifices are known to have been performed. They include the well-known sacrifices like:
Existence of Āhitāgnis
Āhitāgnis are prevalent even now, though they seem to be vanishing eventually. By the time of the Ṛgvedāsamhitā, Vedic sacrificial system seems to have taken a definite and clear shape. The following reasons concur the inference drawn above:
- Names of the Vedic fires like the gārhapatya
- Some sacrifices like the Atirātra
- Need of sixteen priests in a Somayāga like hotṛ, neṣṭṛ and āgnīdhara
- Implements used like yupa, juhu and camasa
- Significance of technical terms like āhāva and avabhṛtha in the Ṛgvedic hymns.
Study of Vedic Sacrifices
A study of the Vedic sacrifices helps in a proper understanding of the Vedic literature, since the latter is closely connected with the former. In fact, the very arrangement of the mantras in the Vedic Samhitās to suit the sacrificial needs also support this view. Hence such a study can be useful in fixing the chronology of the Vedic literature, the development and stratification of the different portions of that literature and the influence that literature has exerted on the varṇa-system and the caste-system.
Basic Literature on Vedic Sacrifices
A lot of information is available about the Vedic literature in a course of time. In the Brāhmaṇas, one can get more details including instructions for their performance. However in the śrautasutras and the śulbasutras, a systematic treatment of the subject is obtained. The latter one is concerned solely with the constructional and engineering aspects of a sacrifice like the measurement and formation of the vedi. The former one describes the functional manual for the priests and hence gives us the modus operandi of the various rites in detail. Therefore its help is invaluable in the study of the Vedic rituals.
Authoritative Works of Śrautasutras
Of the extant works, the following can be mentioned as ancient and authoritative:
- Āpastamba Śrautasutras
- Āśvalāyana Śrautasutras
- Baudhayana Śrautasutras
- Bhāradvāja Śrautasutras
- Katyayana Śrautasutras
- Satyāsādha Śrautasutras
Yajña, Yāga and Homa
Definition of Yajña
A worship in the form of offering oblations, a sacrifice unto the gods.
It is also defined as the tyāga of a dravya unto a devatā. Homa is the act of pouring ājya into the duly consecrated gṛhya or domestic fire. It is a later adaptation of the original yajñas and yāgas. It is more common in pujā or the ritualistic worship of the deities.
Philosophy of Yajña
The general principle accepted by religious tradition is that the scriptures, the Śruti and the Smṛtis are the final authority regarding the ultimate values of life. According to them, yajña or the system of sacrifices was given by God himself at the beginning of creation to human beings and the gods like Indra, Agni, Varuṇa and so on, as a link between them to sustain each other. The human beings were to satiate the gods through the sacrifices and the gods in return would bestow on the human beings rains, food and other things needed to live a prosperous life. These deities controlled the various forces of nature.
When a person performs Vedic sacrifices like Jyotiṣṭoma to go to heaven, the potential effect of it in a subtle form resides in his soul and will give its fruit after death. This potential imperceptible power or śakti, is called ‘apurva’. Human beings need light and heat to sustain themselves in life. The sun and the fire are the two sources for these. The sun is not under human control, but the fire is. Perhaps it was this fact that might have induced our ancient ancestors to protect, maintain, respect and worship the fire. It must have been given the status of a deity as a result of the intuitive experiences of the sages.
Yajamāna or the Sacrificer
The yajamāna or the sacrificer is the chief person in a sacrifice. He is the master of the whole ceremony. He meets all its expenses and claims the fruits of the same. In fact, the very etymological meaning of the word ‘yajamāna’ is ‘the one who is performing the sacrifice’. The ṛtviks or the priests are there only to assist him in its performance. Though they perform all the ritualistic acts, they receive their dakṣiṇā for their labor, thereby enabling the yajamāna to attain the fruits of the sacrifice.
Only the gṛhastha, the married person, belonging to any of the first three varṇas the brāhmaṇa, the kṣattriya and the vaiśya was entitled to maintain the Vedic fires and perform the sacrificial rites. Though a person, could establish the Vedic fires, as soon as he was married, many of them did not do it, since it involved not only considerable expenses but also forced them to stay in one place. Hence, setting up the fires in early middle-age was more common from the ancient period.
Once established, the āhitāgni had to maintain the fires throughout his life. If due to any reason they were extinguished, he had to ceremonially rekindle them. On death, his body had to be cremated with these fires along with the various wooden vessels and implements he used. These vessels were supposed to be placed on his various limbs as per the directions given in the scriptures. In case he took sanyāsa he had to ceremonially discard the fires. The wife of the yajamāna also had important roles to play in the Vedic sacrifices.
Ṛtviks or Priests
Qualities of a Ṛtvik
Next to the yajamāna, comes the ṛtviks or the priests who are the main stay of the sacrifices. A ṛtvik is the one who performs the sacrifices during the proper seasons. It is the yajamāna’s privilege to choose his ṛtviks. A ṛtvik should preferably be a young man, though older persons also could be chosen. He should be well-read in the Vedas, having acquired that knowledge in the traditional way, by attending the gurukula. He should have no physical deformities and disabilities and must be from a good lineage. He must be leading a pure life as described in the smṛti works.
Significance of Four Main Priests
There are four main priests, each representing one of the four Vedas:
Assistants of Main Priests
Each one of these has three assistants, thereby taking the total to a maximum of sixteen. They are:
- Hotṛ - maitrāvaruṇa, acchāvāka, grāvastut
- Adhvaryu - pratiprasthātā, nestā, unnetā
- Udgātṛ - prastotā, pratihartā, subrahmaṇya
- Brahmā - brāhmanāccharnsī, āgnīdhra, potā
These three assistants are respectively called dvitīyī or ardhi, tṛtīyī and pādi.
Duties of Assistant Priests
Their duties as well as the fees that they get are in the declining order. For instance, the dvitīyīs get half, the tṛtīyīs one-third and the pādis one-fourth of the fees that is paid to the chief priests, known as ‘mahartvijas’. The number of priests in any sacrifice varies according to its needs. In the Somayāgas sacrifices all the sixteen take an active part.
Classification of the Yajñas
The yajñas have been classified in various ways. ‘Sansthā’ is the technical term used for a group of sacrifices. The Bodhāyana Gṛhyasutras gives a comprehensive description of the whole system of sacrifices thus. ‘Yajñas can be classified into 21 groups. They are carried out with the help of the mantras in the three Vedas:
Domesticated animals, wild animals and the products of plants and trees are the materials used for oblation. The emoluments paid to the priests keep them alive. Yajña can also be classified as four-fold:
Each succeeding yajña gives a tenfold result of the preceding one. The last part is very interesting and needs some clarification. It defines it as the following:
- Svādhyāya is study and recollection of the Vedas learnt in the gurukula.
- Japa is the repetition of certain Vedic hymns or mantras.
- Karma is the actual performance of the prescribed rites.
- Symbolical meditations based on the Vedic rituals constitute the last, the mānasayajña and that is considered to be the best.
Grouping of the Yajñas
The Yajñas can be grouped into various groups as per the offerings used in the sacrifice.
The Seven Pākayajñas
They are performed in the aupāsa-nāgni or the gṛhyāgni, with cooked offerings such as boiled grains mixed with butter. They comprise these seven:
They are the rites meant for worldly gains and prosperity.
The Seven Haviryajñas
All these sacrifices are performed in the three śrautāgnis or Vedic fires are:
The Seven Somayāgas
They are called ‘Somayāgas’ since the juice of the soma creeper is the main ingredient of the offerings. They are:
There are other ways of classification also. For instance a model sacrifice like the Darśapurṇamāsa is also called ‘prakṛti’. Its modifications like the kāmyeṣṭis, are called ‘vikṛti’. While describing the vikṛti-yāgas, only the changes and modifications are stated, the other details being filled up from the prakṛti.
Another method of classification is nitya, naimittika and kāmya sacrifices. It can be explained as following:
- The nityayajña has to be performed regularly and compulsorily. For example, the Agnihotra is an example of this type.
- The Kṣāmavatīṣṭi has to be performed if one’s house is destroyed by fire, for future protection. This is a naimittika yajña.
- Aindrāgneṣṭi is an example for the kāmya type. One who is desirous of winning in a competitive venture, is advised to perform it.
A third manner of division is aiṣtika, pāśuka and saumika. It can be explained as:
- If the havis is a material like puroḍāśa, ājya, or caru then it is an aiṣṭika sacrifice.
- If the havis is a paśu or an animal, then the rite is pāśuka.
- If the havis is soma juice then the yajña becomes saumika.
Fire and its Production
Significance of Fire in Sacrifices
Agni or fire is the most important part of Vedic sacrifices. As the deity supervising over the elemental fire, it is looked upon as the carrier of the offerings of oblation to the various Vedic deities like Indra. Hence it is also named as ‘Havyavāt’ which means ‘one who carries the havis’. However, as the basic source of light and energy, it is sometimes identified with Brahman, the Supreme God. The term ‘Jātavedas,’ means ‘One who knows everything as soon as he is manifested’. This term is generally applied to it in this sense also.
Significance of Establishing the Fire
Rules for Kindling the Fire
A gṛhastha or householder belonging to any one of the first three varṇas is entitled to establish the Vedic fires even ten days after his marriage. A suitable auspicious day is to be fixed with special reference to the ṛtu and nakṣatra. Amāvāsyā of the month of Vaiśākha with the Rohiṇī-nakṣatra is considered to be the best day by many authorities.
Before this day, the yajamāna and his wife are expected to purify themselves by japa, homa, ‘aupāsanāgni’ kṛcchra and purity in ethical behavior like patching up with enemies, clearing the debts and so on.
Rituals in the Process of Establishing the Fire
- Agnyādhāna is not considered as a yajña, though it appears to be so, during its performance.
- To get it performed, the yajamāna should select the priests, this is called ‘ṛtvigvaraṇa’ and duly honor them.
- Then comes sambhāraṇa, the act of ceremonially collecting the materials needed for the rite.
- The most important part of this is the collecting of pieces of the aśvattha wood and preparing the araṇis.
- After shaving, bath and the performance of some minor rites like sarvauṣadha-homa, the araṇis are properly received by the yajamāna from the adhvaryu priest.
- He then produces fire by attrition. This is termed as ‘agnimanthana’.
- He deposits it in the round pit meant for the gārhapatya fire.
- Embers from this fire are taken to the semicircular pit of the dakṣiṇāgni and another fire is prepared there.
- The third fire, the āhavanīya, is formed similarly in the square pit, taking the embers from the dakṣiṇāgni.
- Thus, all the three Vedic fires are now fully prepared and established.
Duties of Yajamāna After the Establishment of Fire
- It is the bounden duty of the yajamāna to protect these fires from being desecrated or extinguished.
- In case this happens, the fires have to be rekindled by the process of punarādhāna, which is very similar to the Agnyādhāna, with some minor modifications.
- The yajamāna is expected to perform the Agnihotra and the Darśapurṇamāsa which are nitya or obligatory in these fires.
- Two more fires, the sabhya and the āvasathya, are also established on special occasions as and when necessary.
Some General Rules
Every sacrifice has its own rules and regulations. However, there are quite a few rules commonly applicable to all of them. They may be summarized here:
- Unless otherwise stated, the yajamāna should always squat on the ground facing north.
- All the articles to be used in the sacrifice, like the kuśa grass, should be kept with their ends pointing towards the east.
- The yajñopavīta should be worn in the upavīta fashion.
- Unless directed otherwise, only the right limb should be used whenever the word aṅga is mentioned.
- The yajamāna is the agent of action in respect of giving gifts. He has to repeat the texts wherever the word vācayati’ is used, during the performance of the sacrifices.
- All the measurements mentioned in a sacrifice have the height of the yajamāna as the basic unit. For instance, the size of the vedi or that of the yāgaśālā is determined by the height of the yajamāna.
- In the Darśapurṇamāsa sacrifice, the length of the vedi is equal to his height.
- When no performer is expressly mentioned, it is the adhvaryu priest who does it.
- All the prāyaścitta-karmas or the expiatory rites and the ones meant by the words ‘juhoti’, and ‘japati’ refer to the brahmā priest as the agent.
- Whenever only the first pāda of a ṛk is mentioned, the whole ṛk is to be recited.
- An exception always gets precedence over a general rule.
Definiton of Vedi
‘Vedi’ means an altar. ‘Yajñāyudhas’ are the various implements used in sacrifices. The vedi is either an elevated or an excavated plot of ground strewn with the darbha grass, where sacrificial utensils and implements are placed. It is shaped within a rectangular area. The northern and the southern sides are concave.
- Vedi for the Agnihotra
- Vedi for Darśapumamāsa and Istis Acamana
- Dotted lines indicate the samcāras of the Brahman etc.
Dimensions of a Vedi
Measurements and shape of a vedi vary according to the type of the rite to be performed, as described in the concerned texts. The height of the sacrificer is the unit used to determine the various measurements. Cayana or Agnicayana are associated with the vedi. It is the rite of piling the bricks for the fire-altar, in Somayāgas. The altar is built with five layers of bricks. It may have several shapes such as:
- Suparṇa - eagle
- Śyena - hawk
- Droṇa - trough
The bricks used also may be of various shapes triangular, oblong or square.
The yajñāyudhas are the instruments and implements used in Vedic sacrifices. They are as many as 43. However, only a few, the major ones, more commonly needed are described here.
- Agnihotrahavanī - It is a big ladle made of vikaṅkata wood used for pouring the oblation of milk into the gārhapatya fire.
- Ajyasthalī - It is a vessel of bronze used for keeping ājya or ghee.
- Anvāhāryasthāli - It is a big metallic vessel used to cook food enough for four persons on the dakṣmāgni which is also called ‘anvāhārya-pacana’. The food is distributed among the priests after the main sacrifice is over.
- Aranis - The araṇis are two pieces of wood, used to produce fire by attrition. The top piece called ‘uttarārani’, is shaped like a round pestle. The bottom piece has a pit
into which the strained juice falls. They are used in the Somayāgas into which the top araṇi can loosely fit. Fire is produced by the process of churning.
- Dohana - It is the vessel used for containing the milk during milking.
- Drṣad and Upala - They are the lower and the upper grinding stones used to pound the grains for preparing the puroḍāśa. Dṛṣad is flat and upala is cylindrical.
- Camasa - Camasas are deep wooden bowls, square in shape and have short handles. They are used for keeping the soma juice.
- Daśāpavitra and Dronakalaśa - The former is a small piece of cloth used as a fringed strainer, to strain the soma juice. The latter is the wooden vessel into which the strained juice falls. They are used in the somayāgas.
- Idapatra and Darupatra - The iḍāpātra is an oblong vessel made of aśvattha wood. It is used to keep the remnant of havis after oblation. The dārupātra is similar to it and is utilized to keep puroḍāśa and caru. Some mark is made on the latter to distinguish it from the former.
- Juhu and Upabhrt - They are wooden spoons similar to the agnihotrahavaṇī, but smaller in size.
- Kapālas - They are small square-shaped troughs made of burnt clay, used to cook the puroḍāśa cakes.
- Kṛṣṇājina - It is a deer-skin. The dṛṣad and the upala are placed on it before pounding the grains.
- Madantī - It is the vessel used to keep water and heat it for preparing the puroḍāśa cakes.
- Musala - It is the pounding pestle made of khadira wood.
- Pranītā-pranayana - It is the long rectangular wooden vessel made of aśvattha used by the adhvaryu priest to carry holy water.
- Sandarhśa - It is the pair of iron tongs used for various purposes.
- Sānnāyya-tapanī - They are two vessels of bronze used to heat the milk of morning and evening, mixed together.
- Sphya - It is a piece of khadira wood shaped like a sword. Its uses in sacrifices are many.
- Śruk and Śruva - They are small-size wooden spoons used for offering ājya or clarified butter.
- Śūrpa - It is the winnowing basket, generally made of bamboo.
- Ulukhala - It is a wooden mortar made of any sacrificial wood used along with the musala or pestle for crushing the grains.
- Yoktra - It is a straw-rope made of the muñja grass used as a belt.
- Yupa - It is the octogonal wooden post to which the animal to be immolated, is tied.
Desire Motivated Vedic Sacrifices
Names of some desire motivated sacrifices and their fruits can be shown in table below:
|Fruits of the Sacrifices
|Plenty of food
|Victory in competition
|Amputating a diseased limb to protect life
|Victory in battle
|Freedom from sins
|Cure of chronic diseases
|Overcoming fear of death
|Protection of one’s kingdom
|Fulfillment of all desires
|Protection against black-magic
A Brief Account of Some Well-known Sacrifices
The number of sacrifices listed in the Vedic and allied works which are available now is legion. An attempt is made here to give a very brief account of some of the common or more well-known ones, arranged in the English alphabetical order.
- Agnihotra - It is an obligatory sacrifice, to be performed from the very day the Vedic fires are established. The havis can be cow’s milk or gruel or cooked rice or curds
or ghee. In the absence of the yajamāna, his wife or his son or his pupil can do it on bis behalf.
- Agnistoma - It is the first of the Somayāgas and is the prakṛti for others. It is spread over five days and needs all the sixteen priests. It is performed annually in the spring season. The climax is reached during the mādhyandina-savana when the sacrificial fees are also distributed.
- Aptoryāma - It is a modification of the Agniṣṭoma and is performed to fulfill any desire. The sacrificer is expected to gift away 1000 cows or even more. A chariot is also to be given to the hotṛ priest.
- Aśvamedha - Since an aśva or a horse is sacrificed, this yāga is called ‘Aśvamedha’. It is one of the most ancient sacrifices and can be performed only by very powerful kings or emperors. Though the horse is let out for roaming, for a period of one year, the actual sacrifice itself is spread over only three days. If the horse is killed or carried away by the enemies, the sacrifice becomes nullified.
- Atirātra - This is also a Somayāga and is performed in one day. The Aśvins are offered puroḍāśa. An ewe or a ram is sacrificed unto the goddess Sarasvati.
- Cāturmāsya - Actually this comprises three sacrifices to be performed at four-monthly intervals. They are:
- Darśapurṇamāsa - It is an obligatory rite of the iṣṭi type. It is a prakṛti for many other sacrifices. It is begun on the first full-moon day after Agnyādhāna and may be spread over two days. All the four principal priests take part in it.
- Nirudhapaśubandha - An obligatory rite, to be performed once in six months or once in a year, it involves the immolation of an animal, a he-goat. Indra and Agni, Surya and Prajāpati are the deities to be appeased. Six priests are needed.
- Pindapitryajña - This is a sacrifice subordinate to the Darśa. It is so called because piṇḍas or rice-balls are offered to the pitṛs or manes. The three piṇḍas are offered to father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
- Rājasuya - It is a very complicated yāga, extending over two years and comprising a number of istis and Soma sacrifices. It can be performed only by kings or emperors as it involves a very heavy fee of 2,40,000 cows to the priests. The abhiṣecanīya rite, involving abhiṣeka of the royal sacrificer, is considered to be its core.
- Sattrayāga - The duration of Sattrayāga may vary from 12 days to one year or even more. There are no priests. All the participating brāhmaṇas become the yajamānas. Their number should not be less than 17 and more than 24. The Yāga includes animal sacrifice. It is interesting to note that playing on a vīṇā with 100 strings of muñja grass is a part of this sacrifice.
- Vājapeya - Performed by the one desiring for unlimited dominion, this yāga has many special features. Number 17 is very important in this rite. For instance: 17 animals are sacrificed, 17 objects are distributed as fees and it even lasts for 17 days. A chariot race in which the yajamāna takes part and is helped to ‘win’ is another interesting feature of this sacrifice.
Every nation has its own sets of beliefs. These beliefs have sustained it over the centuries. The society has believed and still believes that the ancient scriptures especially the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavadgītā and the purāṇas are the final authority in the religio-spiritual fields, where the mind or the intellect cannot penetrate. It is intuitive mystical experience that really counts there and these scriptures are the records of such experiences of the highly respected ṛṣis or sages.
Since these scriptures have declared the divine origination of sacrifices, it is our duty to perform them and maintain that tradition. However, it is true that the Vedic sacrifices are extremely rare today. But, the spirit behind them, viz., earnest prayer and appeal to God, continues vigorously even today in the form of the following:
This spirit of yajña worship of the Divine and making offerings to that Divine that is sustaining us even now. Sometimes, the sect of sacrifice has been dubbed as a sect of hinsā or violence to the animals that are sacrificed. It should clearly be noted that animal sacrifice existed only in one particular group of yāgas, the Niruḍhapaśubandha type.
Since the Vedas have declared that the yajñas are for the betterment of all and the animals immolated in it attains higher worlds, the believers accept it as a small sacrifice for universal good. When thousands of soldiers sacrifice their lives in wars to protect their country, when thousands are uprooted from their hearths and homes during the execution of big projects like building a dam or constructing new railways and roads, or when children are punished by their parents in their own interest, nobody considers it as hiṅsā. Abandoning a person for the sake of protecting a family, a family for the sake of a village or a town and a village or a town for the sake of the whole country has been accepted as a general principle by our society since the most ancient days. It cannot be denied that the Vedic sacrifices exerted a great influence on our ancient society, directly or indirectly, and their spirit like sacrificing the individual good for the social good still survives in the various forms till today.
- Āhitāgnis are those who have ceremonially established the Vedic fires.
- Ṛgvedāsamhitā is considered to be the oldest scripture in the world.
- Yupa means sacrificial post.
- Juhu means wooden ladle.
- Camasa means wooden vessel for the soma juice.
- Āhāva means call seeking permission, by the hotṛ priest.
- Avabhṛtha means concluding bath.
- Vedi means altar.
- Tyāga means giving up or offering.
- Dravya means a specified material.
- Devatā means a specific deity.
- Ājya means ghee.
- Sun means Surya.
- Fire means Agni.
- Dakṣiṇā means sacrificial fee.
- Generally one or three fires are maintained throughout one's life.
- Sanyāsa means monastic life.
- Seasons are called ṛtu.
- Gurukula is the forest academy run by the expert teachers.
- Bodhāyana Gṛhyasutras 18.104.22.168
- Gṛhyāgni means the fire lit up and consecrated at the time of marriage.
- This oblation material is generally uncooked.
- Prakṛti means original.
- Kāmyeṣṭis are the desire-motivated rites.
- Vikṛti means modified forms.
- Nimitta means a special cause.
- Kāmya means that which is desired.
- Puroḍāśa means rice-cake.
- Ājya means clarified butter.
- Caru means porridge.
- This place is the yāgaśālā or the sacrificial shed.
- Ṛtu means season.
- Nakṣatra means asterism.
- Amāvāsyā means new-moon day.
- Vaiśākha means April-May.
- Rohiṇī-nakṣatra is the fourth lunar mansion.
- Japa means repetition of mantras.
- Homa means special offerings into the gṛhya fire.
- Aupāsanāgni’ kṛcchra means certain physical austerities like fasting.
- Aśvattha wood means Ficus religiosa, the Fig tree.
- Kuśa grass is Poa cyno-suroides.
- Yajñopavīta means the sacred thread.
- Upavīta means suspended over the left shoulder and below the right arm.
- It includes right hand, right finger, right leg and so on.
- Aṅga means limb.
- Vācayati means ‘makes him repeat’.
- Vedi means sacrificial altar.
- Yāgaśālā means sacrificial shed.
- Juhoti means he offers.
- Japati means he mutters.
- Pāda means quarter.
- Ṛk means Rgvedic mantra.
- Vikaṅkata wood means Flacourtia sapida.
- Puroḍāśa means rice cake.
- Caru means porridge.
- Scientific name for Khadira wood is Acacia catechu.
- Prakṛti means model.
- Mādhyandina-savana means extraction of the soma juice, at midday.
- Somayāga is an optional form of Jyotiṣṭoma.
- Caitra generally fall in February-March.
- Āṣāḍha generally fall in July.
- Kārttika or Mārgaśira generally falls in November.
- Piṇḍas means each succeeding one being bigger than the preceding one.
- Abhiṣeka means sprinkling of sacred water.
- Vīṇā means lute.
- Both private and public homas.
- Japa means repetition of mantras and divine names.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore